Mercury levels rising around northeast Alberta oilsands

28 Jan

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Margaret Munro reports that mercury from oilsands operations is contaminating an area of about 19,000 square kilometres in northeast Alberta, according to federal scientists.

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Levels of the neurotoxin found near the industrial operation have been found to be up to 16 times higher than “background” levels for the region, says Environment Canada researcher Jane Kirk, a member of SETAC, the Society of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry’s North America Advisory Group, who recently reported the findings at an international toxicology conference.

Mercury can accumulate in living creatures and chronic exposure can cause brain damage. Environment Minister Leona Aglukkaq signed an international treaty in October pledging Canada to further reduce releases to the environment.

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Though federal scientists stress the mercury loadings around the oilsands are low compared with the contamination in many parts of North America including southern Ontario and southern Quebec, they say the mercury is “the number one concern” when it comes to the metal toxins generated by oilsands operations. It is also a major worry for aboriginal and environmental groups concerned about the oilsands’ impact on fishing, hunting and important wildlife staging areas downstream of the oilsands.

Environment Canada scientists are sampling everything from snow to lichens to bird eggs as part of the federal-provincial joint oilsands monitoring program.

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Jane Kirk who will publish the findings in a scientific study in 2014, told the Society of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry conference in Nashville in November 2013 that about 19,000 square kilometres are “currently impacted by airborne Hg (mercury) emissions originating from oilsands developments.”

Co-investigator Derek Muir, head of Environment Canada’s ecosystem contaminants dynamics section and Jane Kirk stressed in an interview with Postmedia News that much higher levels of mercury pollution are seen in southern Ontario and southern Quebec, which are on the receiving end of toxins created by incinerators, combustion and coal-burning power plants.

There are indications the toxin is building up in some of the region’s wildlife. Environment Canada wildlife scientist Craig Hebert told the toxicology conference that mercury levels have been increasing in eggs of several water bird species downstream of the oilsands: in 2012 mercury levels in the majority of Caspian Tern eggs exceeded the lower toxicity threshold.

The oilsands’ upgraders, open pit mines, exposed coke piles, and tailings ponds have been associated in previous work with polycyclic aromatic compounds, which have been linked to cancer, and a long list of other chemicals including 13 priority pollutant elements such as lead, cadmium and selenium.

Kirk’s team has found mercury and a long list of other priority pollutants on the bottom of five remote, seemingly undisturbed lakes located 10 to 50 kilometres from the oilsands, going up in parallel with oilsands development. These toxins may be related to emissions from the open pit mines and exposed coke piles.

The industry is a direct source of potent methyl mercury in this region; when the snow melts methyl mercury which enters lakes and rivers could be taken up directly by organisms and could eventually enter the food chain.

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